It’s not exactly writer’s block. But I have chronic difficulty writing about exceptional books.
How long has it been since I promised to finish my review of J.K. Rowling’s “The Casual Vacancy?” Is it a novel about small-town life, or human hypocrisy, or intolerance, or poverty? Local politics gone crazy, or class warfare? Darned if I know. I’d have to read the whole thing again to sort it all out. (Rowling is British, but her story resounds in American culture.)
Usually I can comment freely while in the middle of a good book. But as I read the final page, I’m struck speechless. Partly it’s a sense of grief that the book is over. Partly it’s awe at the author’s virtuoso performance. What can I say but, “Bravo!”?
I know, I know. I’ve bogged down in two treacherous subjects. Politics (boring) and economics (more so). This political-economic obsession can only lead to dystopia, which is a particularly virulent strain of paranoia. Dystopia-paranoia flu is spreading quickly. Scientists worry about a pandemic.
There’s no known cure, but a good novel about human beings and their foibles couldn’t hurt. (You might also try a bowl of chicken soup.) If it’s foibles you want, Anne Tyler is the leading specialist. As Exhibit A, I submit the following paragraph from her latest book, The Beginner’s Goodbye.
Liam and Eunice were in the blush of romance, last we saw them. That didn’t last long, naturally. What “Noah’s Compass” needs is a little more love and a little less reality. I won’t spoil the story by revealing the details of the relationship’s failure. It was painful, and sad, and just plain disappointing. But you knew that.
I’ve read nearly 100 more pages of “Noah’s Compass.” When we left Liam Pennywell, he was alone and depressed, and, as he put it, “Almost waiting to die.” Naturally, Anne Tyler wasn’t going to let Liam’s story go in a straight line.
Liam soon becomes involved with a younger woman, a woman who says, “My parents think I’m a failure.” Next thing you know, Liam’s teen-age daughter, Kitty, has moved out of her mother’s house and settled in Liam’s den, for the summer. Liam’s romantic interest, Eunice, is coming over every evening, under the pretense of helping him with his resumé, Kitty’s teen-age boyfriend visits all the time, and Liam is providing taxi service for the two teens. ‘Nother words, Liam’s life is getting complicated.
It doesn’t take long for Anne Tyler to establish our hero, Liam Pennywell, as a pathetic character. He has been recently “fired,” or “downsized,” depending on your viewpoint, from his teaching job.
In the first few pages of “Noah’s Compass,” Liam bravely assesses the situation and recognizes that he ought to live more simply and frugally. He gives up his comfortable apartment and moves to a small, nondescript one-bedroom place.
I’ve got it. Noah’s Compass, the 18th novel by Anne Tyler, one of the great authors of my lifetime. It’s just out in hardback. I don’t buy many books anymore, but I need this one. I think it might be about me.
The dust jacket says Noah’s Compass is the story of Liam Pennywell, “A schoolteacher, who has been forced to retire at sixty-one, coming to terms with the final phase of his life.” With a name like Liam Pennywell, you know right away he’s not an Alpha Male.
I don’t know which is worse, the lost job or the “final phase.” It sounds so . . . so Final.